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Ancient Greek Underground Tomb Discovered in Italy Using Cosmic Rays

Ancient Greek Underground Tomb Discovered in Italy Using Cosmic Rays
Remains of frescoes on the North wall found in an underground Greek tomb discovered in Italy using the 21st-century technique of muography. Credit: Nature / CC BY 4.0

Advanced technology has been used to discover fascinating history deep beneath the streets of Naples, Italy. The findings reveal the remains of the Greeks who originally settled the area and the catacombs of Christians who lived there during the Roman era nearly 2 millennia ago.

The use of cosmic rays and lasers allowed researchers to examine the underground without the need for any physical excavation.

Previously, researchers were aware of the presence of ancient Greek burials beneath the city, but they were unable to access all of them.

Use of 21st-century techniques

Naples, originally founded as Cumae, was later renamed Neapolis (Greek for New City) around 650 B.C. The area boasted many temples, a forum, and numerous underground tombs.

In the Rione Sanità district, which is now highly populated and picturesque, there are tombs from multiple stages of occupation.

The burial chambers for the wealthy, known as hypogea (υπόγεια), date from the sixth to third centuries B.C. while the early Christian catacombs are from the later Roman period (second to fourth centuries A.D.).

Accessing ancient sewers, cisterns, and tombs that are 33 feet (10 meters) below the streets is challenging due to the contemporary buildings above them. To overcome this challenge, a team of Italian and Japanese researchers proposed using modern techniques to identify unknown burial hypogea.

Their study, which was published on April 3 in the journal Scientific Reports, explains how the researchers used muography to detect underground spaces that archaeologists were not previously aware of.

Using the muons’ tracks

Ipogeo dei Melograni decorated with fruits frescoes
Ipogeo dei Melograni decorated with fruit frescoes. Credit: Nature / CC BY 4.0

Muons are the particles like electrons that were discovered back in 1936 and are produced by cosmic rays in the Earth’s atmosphere. These particles can easily pass through solid objects like walls and rocks, making them useful for scientific studies.

Researchers used a special technology called “nuclear emulsion” to record the tracks of these muons. This technology uses highly sensitive photographic film to capture and visualize the paths of these particles.

The scientists wanted to scan an ancient Greek necropolis that was about 33 feet (10 meters) below the Earth’s surface, which meant they had to find a stable spot even deeper than that to set up the equipment. The equipment they used looked like a flatbed scanner, and with it, they were able to capture incredible images of the underground structures they were studying.

Presence of a burial chamber in a 19th-century cellar

Fragments of underground Greek tomb discovered in Italy
Underground Greek tomb discovered in Italy. Credit: Nature / CC BY 4.0

A team led by physicist Valeri Tioukov placed muon tracking devices 59 feet underground in a 19th-century cellar that was once used for aging ham. Over 28 days, the team recorded about 10 million muons and studied their movement patterns.

To identify any unknown underground structures, the researchers created a 3D model of what was already known to exist. By comparing this model with the measured muon flux, the team could detect any anomalies that were not visible in the 3D model. Any such anomalies were confidently assumed to be hidden or unknown cavities.

The muography revealed an excess of muons in the data, which could only be explained by the presence of a new burial chamber. The study explained that the chamber’s area measures roughly 6.5 by 11.5 feet and has a rectangular shape, indicating that it is human-made rather than natural.

New chamber might be part of ‘Greek necropolis’

Togati - fragment of a high relief with a funeral farewell scene
Togati – a fragment of high relief with a funeral farewell scene. Credit: Nature / CC BY 4.0

Based on the depth of the chamber, the researchers believe that it was part of the ancient Greek necropolis, dating back to the period between the sixth to the third centuries B.C. It is likely that this hypogeum served as the tomb of a wealthy individual.

The researchers suspect that this chamber may be similar to others discovered in the late 19th century, such as the Hypogeum of the Toga-wearers and the Hypogeum of the Pomegranates.

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